We began the Lenten season by thinking about the significance of covenantal relationships. And, it might be that you will recall that I used the example of Marcellus the cat to help us focus on the reality that all relationships among humans are covenantal. That is because in relationships between people (and indeed between people and certain critters) there exists a whole complex of hopes and expectations that we all bring into a relationship. Sometimes those hopes and expectations are realistic; and sometimes they are not. And, when they are not based on some grounding of reality, those relationships eventually fail.
Now, using that image of the covenantal nature of relationships, we also explored how awkward it is and how unsatisfactory it is when we try to base what should be a covenantal relationship on contract law. This is fairly clear in the case of Marcellus. On the third evening that he showed up on my back porch expecting dinner, he did not present me with a contract, extending a claw that we might sign the deal in blood. But that does not mean that there is not a certain amount of expectation that exists in the relationship.
We tried to explore this by thinking about the ways in which Saint Paul wrote about the distinction between the law and the Gospel; the law of the old covenant and the dispensation of grace given to us in the new. For although his writings are chiefly inaccessible to most of us because they are complex and difficult to understand, yet there is a way in which his writings highlight a thing that we all know: there is a difference between a covenanted relationship and a contractual relationship. And, that things do not go very well when we confuse those. It is better that there is a contractual understanding between me and my bank; it is better that there is a covenantal relationship between spouses.
Jeremiah’s reading today, 31.31 reminds us that God desires a covenantal relationship with you. He does not desire that sort of relationship in which a person studies the contract, looking for the loopholes and ducking out of commitments that have been made. What he desires, Jeremiah tells us, is that he wants a law not written on tablets of stone, but a law of love that is written upon our very hearts and our very souls.
So, the law of this new covenant is not written on tablets of stone, but it is written in the passion of our crucified Lord Jesus Christ. It is this institution of the new covenant in which the law of love is written in your heart to which Saint John refers in his Gospel as the glorification of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The glory of God and the power of God are shown forth in this world in the brokenness of the Lord Jesus dying on the cross. We tend to forget that about the cross. Why? We tend to forget that about the cross because there is the tradition of interpreting the passion of the Lord Jesus as God’s divine punishment for our sins. That tradition is firmly embedded within Calvanistic Theology. Someone had to pay for what you might do tomorrow. And therefore Jesus’ death was a punishment for that extra helping of ice cream that you served yourself before bedtime. I don’t think so. And, yet, because the passion of our Lord puts us so ill at ease, that’s about as far as the popular understand goes. “ If I had any sins, but I really don’t because mostly I intend the good and not evil, then Jesus must have died for them, so I am forgiven in case I ever do something that is sinful.” Thinking like this actually trivializes the Passion of our Lord Jesus because what that thinking essentially says is that Jesus died for naught. For, if I say that I have no sin, then I cannot be forgiven, and I’m essentially saying that Jesus did not have to die for me, therefore I’m saying that his death was pointless.
But to set the record straight. Yes, Jesus died for your sins. But not for yours alone. He died for the sins of the whole world—it is not just about you. But beyond that, He died to institute the new covenant the new law, the law of love in which there is real closeness, intimacy between God and his creation. The glory of God is shown forth on the cross because the cross is the institution of the new covenant, the promise of new life and the promise of the Holy Spirit poured out upon all flesh.